Unlike the starting rotation, which Mr. Nelson went over yesterday, there isn't much dispute about who will be in the bullpen for the Twins this year. Last season, the Twins owned the best bullpen in the bigs and that doesn't look to change too much this year. With six guys essentially locked in, there is realistically only one spot up for grabs, and that's IF the Twins choose to carry a seventh reliever like they did last year.
Joe Nathan - The Closer
2006 Stats: 68.1 IP, 1.58 ERA, 36 SV, 95 K/16 BB, 0.79 WHIP
Nathan was simply amazingly last year. Beyond the basic stats, Nathan put up his best numbers with a 12.51 K/9IP rate and a very impressive 5.94 K/BB. Opponents managed only a .158/.212/.242 line against Nathan, about as good as you get for a closer (beyond Eric Gagne's unbelievable .133 opponent average in 2003). However, Nathan was even better than that. With runners in scoring position, opponents "hit" .145/.258/.200. In "late and close" situations, they managed a pathetic .146/.205/.208 line. And when games were within one run, opponents hit .118/.211/.188. In fact, Nathan was harder the hit the closer the game was. This is all to say that there is little debate that Nathan is the best closer in the game. I think Nathan will be just as good as he was in 2006. This year, I'll predict he'll save 40 games, have a 1.80 ERA, and continue to make his mark as an elite closer.
Juan Rincon - The Set-up man
2006 Stats: 74.1 IP, 2.91 ERA, 65 K/24 BB, 1.35 WHIP
Since his great 2004 season, Juan Rincon hasn't been quite as good. Last year, he obviously wasn't too bad, as his 2.91 ERA attests; however, he had a very bad second half. Rincon had a 4.11 ERA after the All-Star break along with a 5.23 ERA in August and a 4.77 ERA in September. Just as bad, he gave up 31 hits in 21 2/3 innings between the two months. Its hard to know if this indicates that Rincon will only get worse in the coming seasons, but it's unlikely he will strike out 106 hitters in relief again. I'm not sure that it means the Twins will trade him, but it should mean lowered expectations for Twins fans. I'd say a 3.40 ERA this year while leading the team in appearances, as he has the last three years.
Jesse Crain - Middle Reliever
2006 Stats: 76.2 IP, 3.52 ERA, 60 K/18 BB, 1.27 WHIP
Crain, like the Twins, was a story of two halves last season. Before the All-Star break, he had a 5.03 ERA and had allowed a .305 opposing BA. After the break, he had a 1.93 ERA with opponents only hitting .207. Crain, however, also had major issues in clutch situations. With runners in scoring position, opposing hitters smacked Crain around at a .319/.375/.464 clip. C, with no one on, batters only hit .243/.283/.320. Thus, it could be that Crain has to be used in certain situations to be effective. Pat Neshek was far more effective in close situations. Crain is good for the seventh, but he may have to be used carefully. I think he'll be better this year, but not spectacular. I'd predict a 3.20 ERA along with a similar strikeout rate and innings.
Pat Neshek - Middle Reliever
2006 Stats: 37 IP, 2.19 ERA, 53 K/6 BB, 0.78 WHIP
After his July call-up, Neshek was simply amazing. Overall, opponents managed a meager .176/.210/.321 line against Neshek. In July, he had a 1.74 ERA in 10 1/3 innings. He was even better in August, with a 0.59 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 15 1/3 innings. He didn't do particularly well in September, with a 4.77 ERA, and he struggled somewhat against lefties, as they hit .244/.300/.511 against him. Righties, on the other hand, couldn't touch Neshek, batting .140/.159/.211. Neshek's struggles against lefties are a little overplayed and don't matter much, since Nathan, Rincon, and Dennys Reyes do so well against lefties. Neshek should be great again, considering his great K/BB rate. I predict a 2.40 ERA and a 90/15 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
Dennys Reyes, Lefty Specialist
2006 Stats: 50.2 IP, 0.89 ERA, 49 K/15 BB, 0.99 WHIP
Reyes basically came out of nowhere last year with a great season. Before 2006, Reyes had his best year in 1999 for the Reds, with a 3.80 ERA in 61 2/3 innings. His major problem was that he walked far too many, with a 72 K/39 BB ratio in 1999. He got his K/BB ratio up to 3.27 last year, far and above his career ratio of 1.63. How did Reyes change? Well, Rick Anderson's influence was surely a factor, but Reyes was also used smartly. 66 appearances and only 50 2/3 innings tells use that when Reyes was brought in, he was used sparingly against righties and wasn't left out for long innings (a stark difference from the Twins' mishandling of J.C. Romero). Lefties hit only .148/.219/.205 against Reyes, while righties hit .244/.296/.344 against him. If the Twins continue to use him the same way, he should continue his success, though he probably won't post an ERA under 1 again. I'd predict another 50 innings with a 2.00 ERA.
Matt Guerrier, Long Relief
2006 Stats: 69.2 IP, 3.36 ERA, 37 K/21 BB, 1.42 WHIP
For a second straight year, Guerrier was effective as the Twins' long reliever and spot starter. None of Guerrier's stats stand out particularly, as he had a weak 1.76 K/BB ratio and struck out only 4.78 hitters per nine innings. Also, hitters managed a solid .287/.333/.426 line against Guerrier. How then did Guerrier manage a 3.36 ERA? There is luck and a 1.35 GB/FB ratio, suggesting that besides the nine homers he gave up, Guerrier kept the ball on the ground. His FIP (Fielding Indepedent Pitching) gives him an ERA of 4.78. In other words, there is some reason to think that Guerrier's ERA might go up a bitnext year. I'd predict 70 innings and a 4.50 ERA for 2007.
And now for a discussion of the potential last spot:
2006 Stats (w/ Class-AA New Britain): 89 IP, 4-3, 2.33 ERA, 81 K/50 BB, 1.31 WHIP
Durbin is about the only realistic candidate to be a new member of the Twins bullpen. With Willie Eyre gone, there is an open spot if Ron Gardenhire chooses to carry 12 pitchers again. Howard Sinker seems to think that Durbin has a chance to be in, reasoning that Guerrier will not be on the team because Gardy may take 12 pitchers and will take another lefty. I don't think Sinker is right in saying the Twins will take another lefty or that Guerrier will not be on the team, but there is certainly a good chance that there will be 12 pitchers on the team again, provided that Gardy isn't so obsessed with a third-string catcher that he keeps Matthew LeCroy.
Durbin is a great talent with a good arm, but his problem lies with a lack of control and the fact that he may be a bonehead. (Take a look at his "brilliant" blog.) Durbin never put up any amazing years in the minors with high K-rates and he always walked too many, but he posseses a good arm and with a pitching coach like Anderson, he'd have a chance to be an effective relief pitcher. If he makes the team, he'll probably have an ERA above 4 with a decent strikeout rate, but he may struggle with walks.
Needless to say, the bullpen is basically a decided issue. I don't think that Mike Venafro, Carmen Cali, or the awful Randy Choate have any chance to make the team. Only Venafro has been good this spring, with six scoreless innings and four strikeouts. It is possible that the Twins add him to the mix, but the problem is that they don't need another lefty. Not only was Reyes plenty effective in limited innings, but most of the Twins right-handed relievers are already effective against lefties. I can't see the Twins giving up a talent like Durbin to keep Venafro. Then again, the Twins did once part with Michael Restovich in favor of the infamous Corky Miller.
All in all, the bullpen should be among the best in the business again in 2007.